November 13, 2004 Known as RP-6, this "Remote Presence Robot" represents yet another advance in the use of robot technology for the delivery of healthcare. Already utilised in numerous medical roles including surgery, robots are set to become increasingly valuable in the delivery of a wide range of healthcare services, including remote or "telemedical" applications. RP-6 acts as a surrogate presence, allowing doctors to visit patients from a remote location and expedite health services to a greater number of users. Doctors can guide the robot to the patient's bedside, take pictures of charts and speak to the patient through the robot. Aimed particularly at those recovering from surgery, the RP-6 is is currently undergoing trials in US hospitals.
Manufactured by Santa Barbara-based InTouch Health, the five-foot high, 200-pound robot looks similar to a large vacuum cleaner with a flat-screen computer monitor mounted on top for a head. Connected to the Internet via broadband and a wireless network, the system includes a live two-way video feed, infrared sensors to prevent bumping and collisions, a microphone and a speaker. The robot can rotate its head and body separately and travel at a top speed of two mph.
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The company has leased 15 Remote Presence Robots in hospitals and nursing homes for US$3000 a month, which includes computer software, operator training (doctors must gain a license to 'drive' the robots) and technical support. The software is updated about once a month in a similar way to other network based robots now on trial for commercial and domestic use in Korea.
The UC Davis Medical Centre is one the sites participating in a scientific study to determine if the robots can be a useful and safe complement to the standard care following surgery. UC Davis urologist Lars Ellison is studying whether a surgeon can adequately assess patients from a remote location using a machine that is known affectionately around the hospital as "Rudy."
From his office or home, Ellison can guide the surprisingly agile machine down the halls of the hospital and right into the rooms of his patients. Equipped with a camera, TV screen and microphone, "Rudy" allows Ellison to have a conversation with his patient in much the same way traditional bedside rounds are conducted. Both the doctor and patient can see and hear each other, and the robot's camera can zoom in to provide a view of the patient's vital signs and surgical incision.
"We think using a robot that allows us to personally visit and check up on our patients after surgery will prove safe and effective," said Ellison. "This is another form of "telemedicine," which is becoming increasingly important because it can enhance the quality of care by helping doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals do their jobs more efficiently and effectively."
Ellison participated in an earlier study at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which found patients prefer seeing their own doctor following surgery rather than a physician they don't know, even if their doctor only visited them via the robot.
Ellison also pointed out that the machine has other potential benefits because it could allow rural surgeons to maintain their care of patients at geographically remote hospitals and protect physician safety when a patient has a highly infectious disease or is suffering from a biochemical exposure.
The robot operates through the Medical Centre's private wireless network, which was recently installed inside the hospital. To navigate the 200-pound machine and appear on its screen in a patient's room, the doctor uses a computer, video camera with built-in audio capabilities and a joystick similar to the ones used for video gaming.
Despite the technological advances it remains to be seen if human patients will warm to the robot medical aides. They are currently being used solely to augment patient rounding. However, the technology also offers potential for remote access for off-site specialist consultation, training, coaching, quality assurance and other needs.
The principle of using a robot surrogate has also been applied to the business world - see article 1979s to read more on the eTravel project.View gallery - 6 images